Exits and Entrances
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 30, 2007
In the middle of Athol Fugard's new play Exits and Entrances there's an exquisite scene that not only illustrates some of the main themes of the piece, but also reminds us just how potent a medium the stage can be at its best. Two actors have just come off stage, following a performance of Oedipus Rex. The older one, who is the star of the show and the manager of the company, sits at his modest dressing table, spent; the younger one, who is our playwright 50 years ago, is exhilarated and starstruck. Both have received messages, which they read silently from either end of the stage. We never learn exactly what they say, but we understand what they mean: one artist is about to take his place on the stage just as the other is about to depart.
Andre Huguenet was a real person, perhaps the greatest Afrikaans actor of the first half of the 20th century, a man whose dream was to create a native Afrikaans theatre in South Africa. Athol Fugard met him in 1956, when Huguenet was 50 and Fugard was 24; Fugard played a small role in Oedipus and also served as Huguenet's dresser and de facto man Friday. Exits and Entrances is a tribute to this man whom Fugard describes as his first mentor in the world of theatre, and also to the powerful idea that theatre, and art in general, can actually make a difference in the world. At one point, Huguenet, looking back at a career marked by unfulfilled promise, chides the young Fugard for writing a play (Blood Knot) about apartheid. Theatre can't change things, he tells the playwright. We know that, certainly in this particular case, it can.
So here is a lovely and heartfelt play from a theatre artist who has never stopped fighting the good fight—a valentine to those who came before and to those who will come after. Stephen Sachs has staged the piece unerringly, and cast it to perfection with Morlan Higgins as Andre and William Dennis Hurley as the playwright, both of whom deliver performances that are deeply felt and unwaveringly intelligent. As Andre, Higgins gets to speak not only Fugard's words but also those of Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Bridget Boland (she was the author of a play called The Prisoner that marked Huguenet's final appearance on stage; it's an intriguing piece about a cardinal held prisoner by a totalitarian state that, as far as I can tell, has not been seen in NYC). Higgins rises to the occasion masterfully, delivering what may be the clearest and most affecting rendition of Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy while seated simply in an armchair, clad in a dressing gown.
The question at the heart of that speech informs everything in this play: the stage is the place where Andre lives and when it stops providing him with both literal and moral sustenance, his survival is very much uncertain. So, too, it seems to be for the playwright, then and now; in the program note, Fugard joins his mentor in proclaiming the theatre his only real home. We are privileged to be invited to spend time with him there, investigating all that it has meant and can mean.